By David Holzel
Donald Anderson's story always returns to Surry County.
When Anderson arrived in Surry, in rural southeast Virginia, in 1968, the public school system was in ruins. The county's white minority had responded to the1954 Supreme Court ruling that struck down racial segregation in schools by abandoning the school system, until only six white children remained. The white leadership that ran the county government had choked off funding. Test scores were the lowest in Virginia. The Black majority lived in a rural poverty that most urban Americans would have been shocked to see.
Anderson was then a 36-year-old attorney—the only African American to graduate from the U-M Law School in the class of 1960who, as an aide to US Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-NY), had had a hand in writing the recent federal anti-poverty legislation.
He came to Surry eager to try his idea of how to organize the county's Blacks so they could better address the poverty and poor education that seemed to be their perpetual lot. So he poked around, found out who among the farmers and laborers were the community's natural leaders, and approached them.
"They were suspicious of me," recalls Anderson, now 71. "'What's he doing here? Is he a Communist?'"
A Jeffersonian antidote to poverty
The confusion was understandable. Into a community where many homes lacked running water had come this Black man who had never known poverty. Anderson was educated, urbane and confident. And he had a plan—one improbably inspired by the workings of the British Parliament and the writings of Thomas Jefferson—that he believed would end the cycle of "wasted lives and collective unhappiness," as he puts it.
He calls his system the Assembly—a structure of mini-parliaments in which local residents can determine solutions to community and personal problems, and build political influence to change the way a county is run.
Surry was Anderson's first attempt to put his idea into practice. He has since replicated it in 74 counties and 2 cities in 5 states, from the Black Belt of southeast Virginia through the Carolinas and Georgia to Mississippi. "The assemblies have enabled the poor to take the last steps from slavery," Anderson says. And if the assembly has taught some rural Blacks how to work the levers of political power, for some 35 years it also has been the force driving Donald Anderson's life.
Surry County is the beginning of the story and the place where it always returns—the first experiment, the first success and the first rebuttal to the skeptics who told Anderson that he couldn't organize an entire impoverished community. "With the $35,000 I spent on Surry County," he says, "no foundation has made so much change with $5 million."
"They called it 'Sorry County,'" says Clarence Penn, the county's former superintendent of schools. "Now everyone says 'Surry' with a modicum of pride."
In 1968, Surry County had a single Black public employee—a janitor. Three years later, the Surry Assembly that Anderson helped organize ran three Black candidates for the five-seat county board of supervisors. All won.
With Blacks running the county, the schools improved, as did almost everything else in Surry. Test scores today are among the highest in Virginia. The high-school dropout rate is low, and 95 percent of graduates go on to college. The Surry Assembly, which is still going strong, "made a tremendous difference," Penn says.
The revolution in Surry was due to the residents themselves, Anderson contends. "All we gave them was the structure."
Each ward a 'small republic'
Thomas Jefferson, that great tinkerer of ideas, suggested the structure for the assembly. Divide each county into wards, Jefferson advised the Virginia legislature. "Each ward would thus be a small republic and every man in the state would thus become an acting member of the common government." From the age of 14, Anderson puzzled how to put this idea of citizen government into practice.
With a symmetry and simplicity that would have pleased an Age of Enlightenment thinker like Jefferson, Anderson's solution was to divide a community into what he calls "conferences" of 50 adults each. "If we go into a community with 5,000 adults, we have 100 conferences," he says.
Each conference meets four times a year to discuss and solve the problems of those 50 adults. And those 50 elect one of their number to represent them in the higher body, the Assembly. So a 5,000-member community would have 100 representatives meeting in its assembly, hearing problems and rendering solutions, which the representatives report back to their conferences of 50.
And here is Anderson's mechanism for keeping this voluntary system from becoming unwieldy: Each conference elects seven of its members to be what Anderson calls "committee members." Each committee member acts as liaison between six other conference members and the conference's Assembly representative.
In this way, a representative need contact only seven people to get a sense of the rank-and-file members' concerns. Each committee member need speak with only seven people—the representative and six members. And the rank-and-file have to inform only a sin.
"Because the Assembly operates on two levels, it operates in the interest of the members of each conference as well as the whole community," Anderson says. "It allows a channel of communication between individuals and the community."
Putting his idea to the test
Anderson put his idea to the test at the height of the 1960s War on Poverty. As general counsel to the House subcommittee that had drafted the anti-poverty legislation, he had serious reservations about how that war was being fought.
"One of the reasons Don did what he did was he didn't think the War on Poverty was effective," says James T. Riley who, fresh out of Duke University in 1969, became advance man to the communities Anderson was targeting. Riley eventually rose to become director of the National Community Development Organization (NCDO), the non-profit Anderson founded to pursue his work. "There was a lot of government money and a lot of energy going that way [to anti-poverty agencies]," says Riley, who now sits on the NCDO's board of directors.
But Anderson didn't see all that money and energy solving the problems Black communities faced. The Assembly is structured specifically to solve one problem at a time—improve the educational system or build roads, for example. It is a mechanism, not a movement. Because the residents do most of the work themselves, NCDO requires little paid staff to operate. The 14 now on staff act largely as technical advisers who can point new assemblies to the resources available for solving problems.
Through their Assembly, the Blacks of Nash-Edgecomb-Rocky Mount, North Carolina, registered 6,000 voters in a single year and "changed the complexion of politics in the county," says the Rev. Thomas Walker, the Assembly's president, who has known Anderson for more than 25 years. When the community elected the first African-American county manager, it began to receive "all the things that come with political power. It has a trickle-down effect," Walker says.
If the whole business sounds arcane, it clearly has brought benefits to Black communities, Anderson says. Yet the reason the Assembly works was unclear at first, even to him.
"White immigrants brought with them community structures from their old countries," he says now. "In the case of Blacks, who were segregated completely, there was no government. Government was enemy territory. Blacks operate individually, but they sense a common goal."
"It's clearly a good concept," Walker says. "We never mastered it completely. But it lifted the community."
'The worst experience of my life'
Anderson is a descendent both of slaves and slaveholders. Until he entered the University of Michigan as a freshman in 1949, he had spent his life on the Black side of the color bar. His father, Russell, was a geneticist and physician; his mother, Celeste, a teacher. In Pittsburgh, where Donald was born, and later in Washington, DC, the family socialized within the middle-class Black community. Donald read widely, particularly the classics, and soaked up the lessons of the professors, ministers and other learned professionals who visited the home. "We didn't come into contact with any white folks," he says. "We didn't go downtown. To tell you the truth, it was a pleasant experience."
Having bucked the status quo, Celeste and Russell didn't see why Donald had to adhere to it. "I didn't finish high school. My parents thought it was a waste of time," he says. "How I got into Michigan, I don't know."
When he boarded the train for Ann Arbor, he began his first sustained encounter with segregation. He spent the three-day ride in a separate car. Once enrolled at Michigan, he lived in a segregated section of West Quad. "There were fewer than 100 Blacks in a school of 18,000," he says. "It was the worst experience of my life. All of a sudden I was with people who were sometimes outwardly friendly, sometimes not friendly at all." White students who came to his room and talked for hours into the night didn't even meet his gaze when passing him on the street.
'I had no friends when I left'
He saw television for the first time at the Michigan Union. Once, when the screen showed a prisoner, Anderson saw some students pointing at him, as if common skin color conferred the prisoner's guilt on him. "I had no friends when I left there," he says.
Two rough years in the US Army further soured him about life in wider American society. "I said, 'I have to get out of this country.'" A professor at Michigan had pointed him to the London School of Economics and in 1955 he began his graduate work there.
At the time, Britain was not yet divided by race. Anderson made friends, and his life began to fall into place. He could indulge his love of Shakespeare. ("Don could quote Shakespeare until everyone fell asleep at night," James T. Riley recalls of his early days working with Anderson to set up assemblies.) And Anderson became an admirer of the British House of Commons and spent many nights there studying parliamentary leadership structure.
When he left Ann Arbor for the Army, Anderson swore he'd never go back to Michigan. But there he was in 1957, entering the U-M Law School, the only Black student in his class.
Why did he return, after the "worst experience" of his life? "I went back because of the Law School's reputation," he says. "At that time it was considered better than Harvard."
With his law degree, he applied for a staff position with Representative Powell, whose clerk had assumed the young applicant was white after reading his resumé. Anderson's experience in government sharpened his vision and, as the 1960s were ending, he decided to test his idea for the Assembly.
He had left Capitol Hill, but not Washington, not entirely. Since 1964 he has rented the same townhouse in a leafy development a mile from the Capitol. It has shelves of books, art on the walls and a constantly ringing telephone. But Anderson does not consider it his real home. That is a cabin he built in 1968 in Botetourt County, at the head of the James River in the mountains of southwest Virginia.
'Paradise' on a slave-owner's land
"It's paradise," Anderson says, sitting in his cramped townhouse and looking across the room to a framed photograph of the view from the cabin's window. Anderson's great-grandfather bought the land, 72 acres of a larger piece of property once owned by the family's plantation-owning, Scottish-American ancestor. His slave ancestors are buried in a plot not far from the cabin's front door.
A few blocks from Anderson's townhouse, young men stand near the street, ready to sell drugs to passersby. Once, Anderson absentmindedly pulled his car over to a man he saw waving at him, and was stopped by a police cruiser after he drove away.
He is now turning his attention to big-city poverty and is looking for foundation money to fund assemblies in Washington and Cleveland. "In the cities there is more crime, but the essence of poverty is still the same," he says. But even with the money, organizing the urban poor seems a longer shot than the rural communities ever were.
Alvertus Tyler has seen the changes in Portsmouth, Virginia, one of two cities with long-time Assemblies. "Right now our Assembly isn't meeting anymore," Tyler says. With the worsening crime in the city, Assembly members "got frightened and they won't come out."
Passing the torch is difficult, too. "It's hard to get young folk to understand the concept," Tyler says. "They're too involved with drugs and crime. Those who we enticed to become involved thought they were way ahead of those who were seasoned. They just wouldn't stay."
James Hill, president of the Assembly of Prince George County in Virginia, says the slow pace of rural life was conducive to making the Assembly work. Now, things move faster, even in the country and, with little for young people to do after high school, many are leaving.
Still, poverty remains a shocking fixture in this country. "The inequality is the thing that gets me," Anderson says. "Lack of education is the source of poverty in this country. People don't understand that only the middle class and the wealthy can educate their kids."
James Riley is blunt about the current climate. "It's not fashionable now to care about the poor."
But Anderson, who seems never to have cared about fashion, says his job is not nearly done. "There are 258 rural counties that are largely Black and poor. I want to get in all those counties. With money, we could do it in two years, three at the most."
That is all the time it took to turn Surry County around and begin to erase the stigma of "Sorry County." And that is where this story ends, back at the beginning.
"Why should we have this problem with all our wealth?" Anderson says. "Our government allows us to ignore these problems. They have abrogated the Declaration of Independence."